Wargaming French Indochina has always been a bit of a goal of mine ever since reading Bernard Fall’s ‘Hell In A Very Small Place’ back in the 80’s. Fast forward to more recent times and the release of the Red Star Miniatures period specific range, which soon became the Empress Miniatures range, and messing about with conversions of US marines became a thing of the past. A pretty sizeable force of several platoons was assembled over time and we have happily gamed the period using amendments to our WWII rules ‘Where The Streets Have No Name’ but the idea that someone might publish a period specific set was always tantalizing. So having got hold of a pdf of Shawn Taylor’s ‘Mourir Pour L’Indochine’ courtesy of our good friend Gareth Lane and had it printed we thought we’d give it a go.
Rather than go through each and every section of the 120 pages – yes you read that right 😮 we’ve opted to discuss the rules based on our play through of the first introductory scenario. Now, before we go any further, we need to be clear that our experience is based on playing the ISK level game, which covers forces from the single squad level up to a couple of platoons where one individually based figure represents one man; the rules also cover company level games, SK+, where the single figure represents a fire team of 3 men. So, our scenario featured a Viet Minh Local Force team tasked with blowing a bridge near a hamlet on the south end of the board before the approaching Foreign Legion patrol spotted and stopped them; the team comprised a command element, a 3 man demolition team, a sniper and a 4 man rifle team, the demo team could deploy in the hamlet near the bridge or some (far away) hills – why? the rest, anywhere they liked. The Foreign Legion force was a weak platoon comprising, a HQ element of Lieutenant & Sergeant and two rifle squads of, a sergeant, two 3 man rifle teams and an Automatic Rifle team of 2 men led by a Corporal; the French entered from the north of the board on the road that led to the bridge with the HQ & 1 squad on the road and the other squad in the grass on one side of the road or other. All the separate elements are referred to as Fire Teams (FT) in the rules.
The sequence of play is, I Go, You Go, and the first to go is usually decided by the scenario with the aggressor going first, although the Viet Minh player has the option of passing on going first – there is a confusion of words here regarding who goes first, on page 26 it says “Often it will be the player on the Offensive” but on page 28 it says “The Viet Minh, unless ……….., will always have the choice of going first or passing the first side sequence to the French” We went with the French going first as they were moving forward. Whoever’s go it is then chooses a unit to activate – a unit is a squad and that squad will contain it’s various sub elements, and there is the familiar choice of things that can be done, move, shoot, rally, ambush, assault, etc, most of which can only be done once. The opposing player then chooses a squad, and so on until all units have been activated – it is important to note here that a unit can also be the HQ element of 2 men, or the lone sniper or the squad sergeant, which did feel a bit odd.
Before we get to movement it is worth saying there is a whole command & control facet to the rules that the author makes a great play about, wherein different levels of command have a specific span of control of units and that this is critical to fire control and rallying – in our experience it made absolutely no difference and wasn’t even anything as simple as ‘troops out of span cannot move or fire’, it was literally four pages of nothing.
There are 3 types of movement, Route March (the fastest), Tactical March and Fire & Movement (most battle effective) and each type has a specific way of deploying the figures, so in Route March “the members of a FT must be in base to base contact and each FT can be no more than 2″ from the next closest FT”, in Tactical March “the members of a FT must be 1/2″ to 1″apart and each FT can be no closer than 2″ from the next closest FT”, in Fire & Movement “the members of a FT must be in base to base contact and each FT can be no more than 2″ from the next closest FT”, Hold on! Isn’t Route and Fire & Move the same? We presumed this was a typo and so played with the figures spread out a bit. The key element to this is that the March variants carry penalties for shooting but you can whizz along the table with bonuses if Veteran, although Elites don’t get a bonus 🤔 Nice idea but a bit long winded, there are also several caveats about whether a march is forced or whether a unit is unreliable or rolling for a random +/- on the movement rate which don’t add much of value really. The key distraction as players was ‘why have I got all these nice individually based figures (as required by the rules and what you would expect in a skirmish/small action game) when they spend most of their time bunched up and where there is separation it’s really something of nothing?’ Much easier to plonk the fire teams in movement trays, plenty of them about – I hate movement trays for skirmishing.
Shooting is always a fun part of any wargame and we managed to get a reasonable amount of this in, the VM sniper had a pot, one of the Legion squads sent him scampering for cover, the VM fire team and the other Legion squad mixed it up and we even had an Assault, but more of that later 😲 The basic concept of the shooting revolves around the FT which is arbitrarily set at 3 figures armed the same – I would dispute the historical evidence for this but as a mechanic it’s fine, but once again, ‘why am I deploying individual figures when all I need is a multi base of 3?’ So, a FT is worth 1 x D10, it ‘sights’ the target – basically visibility is pretty much the whole table unless something big is in the way or you are in the various versions of grass/jungle where sightlines are reduced – I liked this but it took us ages to find, shooting is on page 32 and the terrain modifiers on page 55 😤 Anyway, the D10 is rolled and modified according to what the shooter is doing and what the target is doing plus any terrain modifications and basically a 7+ is needed to get some kind of result although a natural 10 is a kill.
The effect of a hit is to give ‘Resilience Points’ to the squad, to find the meaning of these RP’s you have to chase down page 48 but once you have RP’s then, depending on experience level, you halt, find cover, go to ground, become pinned, flee, surrender. Based on this you can see that fire teams aren’t that effective especially given the random spread of a D10 and that roll takes no account of the shooters experience, so a Veteran FT shoots the same as a Green one it’s just that a Green squad like RP’s less than a Veteran. When it comes to the AR team they roll 4 x D10 and an LMG team rolls 6 x D10, which in both cases is a massive disparity – I genuinely don’t believe a BAR is 4 times as effective as a 3 man rifle team armed with SLR’s, but anyway the random nature of the roll means the BAR can miss completely – we did!
Just a couple of more things on shooting. The ranges are whopping – 60″ for a rifle team, so given this is a skirmish game on something like 4’x4′ or 5’x5′ it’s kind of pointless, just regulate things like smg’s and similar. When a unit is fired at it can immediately return fire if the shots were from a previously unknown target which is kind of fun and it seemed to us that if they hadn’t been activated yet then they could fire again in their turn (we think?). The accumulated RP’s give an enforced result, like seek cover, but it wasn’t clear whether that was immediate, after it had done any return fire or in it’s next activation; we opted for immediately after any return fire and that seemed to work given that not every fire fight elicited return fire.
The only two things left to discuss that we experienced are, Rallying and Assault. The Assault action is meant to replicate those desperate charges you read about from Dien Binh Phu where a small group of legionnaires clear a trench with smg’s & grenades or VM cadres hurl themselves against the wire. As a mechanism it works quite well; you have to be fairly close to start with then move up to throw grenades (if you have them), take fire from the defenders and then get stuck in – the RP’s from grenades and defenders fire are rolled up in the final result and hoorah each figure rolls a dice, highest counts. The overall effect is quite bloody and someone loses, this was innovative and a good representation of the historical evidence. An interesting result of the VM losing an Assault was that they could fade back into the jungle and rally at some pre determined point after x turns, another good representation. There doesn’t seem to be a use for grenades anywhere else in the rules which seems a bit remiss but maybe we missed that.
The rallying aspect of the rules is the getting rid of the RP’s which can be done by in two ways. The unit can ‘self rally’ where it simply discards x number of RP’s depending on it’s experience providing it hasn’t taken anymore that turn and didn’t move and it can also Rally as an action which is where the command span comes into affect and a D6 rolled worth of RP’s is removed. All very simple and nothing to complain about.
So what of the scenario? Well, there was no way the French were going to stop the bridge getting blown, the demo team start pretty close to the bridge and once the charge was planted all they had to do was move away and bang! there was no mechanism for dicing to see if it exploded and nothing in the various sections on mines and booby traps in the main rules, but it served its purpose.
The rules do come with a QRS but it runs to 5 sheets so not very user friendly and suffers from trying to pack too much in, there is nothing wrong with saying “for napalm accuracy see page….” also a couple of tables were at variance with the main rules.
But what of the rules themselves? Now I really, really wanted to like these but when I asked Dave what he thought, his response was “I was so bored”, which is not good. We have play tested a fair number of rules over the years, including my own, and I don’t think I’ve ever had that response before. For me, the kinetic energy you expect from a set of skirmish/small unit action rules was sadly missing, even allowing for the unfamiliarity of a new set. They are certainly exhaustive and maybe that is part of the problem, there is just too much going on, too many things to look up and too may things to do for no appreciable gain, I certainly couldn’t envisage a game of a more than a platoon a side and certainly wouldn’t want to run a multi player game with them. Yes there are definitely some innovative ideas in there and probably some we missed because we didn’t call up air support or artillery
As is de rigor these days the rules contain TO&E’s for the various combatants but I did think these were a bit selective, so yes we have French Infantry Platoon organisation who let’s face it weren’t in too many actions but no Foreign Legion, no Foreign Legion Paratroopers, No Vietnamese Paratroopers, No Colonial Paratroopers, no Moroccans, no Algerians, no Senegalese, I can only assume you are meant to use the standard infantry platoon organisation or paratrooper organisation and assign a morale level you think appropriate. The scenarios are pretty much a standard requirement these days as well and yes they are there, personally I’d rather do an historical set up or my own version based on the general nature of events.
Overall, a bit of a disappointment, which is a shame, Shawn Taylor has clearly put a lot of work in and I know from my own experience what a ball ache that can be but the rules just didn’t do it for us so for now we will continue as we are with maybe a couple of ‘borrowed’ ideas 😁